Delaware Changing Lives recently spoke with Dr. Joshua Thomas, CEO/Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Delaware (NAMI Delaware). NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. NAMI’s mission is to support, educate, and advocate until there is a cure for severe and persistent mental illness. NAMI Delaware has been serving Delawareans since 1983.
In our conversation, Dr. Thomas talks about how his life and work experience has created the special place in his heart for helping others.
DCL: Good morning, Josh! Tell us who you are and what is important in your life.
Josh Thomas: I think the most important part of my life is my family. I’m absolutely thrilled that I get to be the Dad to two wonderful little boys who are three and five. Doing this later in life has been an amazing experience. I wanted to be a Dad for so long and they really have added so much to my life in terms of really resetting my priorities and changing my perspective. Now, the first thing I think when I meet people is that they’re someone’s child – no matter how old they are, they started out just like my kids and I consider how I would want my kids treated throughout life. And so, it really has helped shape the way I engage.
The other way I think about myself is that I have learned to go from advocate to activist, believing strongly in the work I do. NAMI has really propelled me into a perspective that we must shine the light on gaps in our system and on people who are not served and who continue to be marginalized. And that negative behavior towards people with mental illness, that’s just socially acceptable that we need to start calling out. I think it’s wonderful when we can do that in a very diplomatic, friendly way. But at the same time, I think there are times where we must speak up, even when it’s going to make people uncomfortable or there’s going to be some sort of consequence for speaking the truth.
DCL: Where did you grow up?
Josh Thomas: I was born in Minnesota and my family moved to Florida when I was very young. I had a very loving, supportive family and was surrounded by friends and people who loved me and cared about me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve recognized just how important that village is in raising children and supporting children, helping them feel safe, and having lots of people that they can go to and feel safe asking questions.
I was extremely fortunate to grow up in the family that I did and to have the experiences that I had. I lived in Florida until 2012, then my family relocated to the Delaware area.
DCL: What made you want to work in law enforcement?
Josh Thomas: At a very early age, I had a strong sense of justice and wanted to stand up for what is right. That transformed into wanting to be a part of a profession that could make a difference in the community, something that would help change people’s experience in really difficult situations by providing superior support and service to them.
At a young age I joined the Police Explorers, an offshoot of the Boy Scouts, where I got an opportunity to explore a career in law enforcement. We got to ride along with police officers and be around the police station and take classes about what they did. That was a great way to check out that career and to see that it would be a good fit.
DCL: Walk us through your career in law enforcement.
Josh Thomas: I started out at a medium-sized municipal agency in Central Florida. It was a beach community and while I really enjoyed that agency, I really wanted to be a part of a bigger agency with more opportunity. I was hired by the sheriff’s office in a larger community with a million residents and countless tourists during the season.
I spent about seven years as a patrol deputy working the road. I got a chance to work in the patrol priority crimes unit where we would sometimes be in plain clothes and sometimes uniform focused on problem solving in priority areas, then I was a training officer and trained new recruits in the field where we’d ride together, and I would do the on-the-job training with them.
After that, I was selected to be a detective and I spent about eight years as a detective and as Assistant Detective Supervisor.
I was then promoted to Sergeant and went back to patrol and supervised patrol. As Sergeant, I pitched a proposal to the Sheriff to create a staff mental health role. I had gone back to graduate school and become a licensed mental health professional, and I served in that role for about eight years, then was promoted to Lieutenant.
From there, I was appointed the Assistant Director of Human Resources and then the Director of Human Resources and served on the Sheriff’s executive staff. I retired and relocated to the Wilmington area. I had worked with the NAMI chapter in Florida, as part of the advisory board for them.
NAMI was one of the first places that I wanted to reach out to when I got to Delaware to network and see what opportunities were there and they recruited me for the Board of Directors and in a month the Executive Director announced his resignation, and the rest is history.
DCL: What made you choose Wilmington, Delaware?
Josh Thomas: My husband’s company is headquartered here.
DCL: What does NAMI offer people?
Josh Thomas: People come to us in a variety of ways. One way is through our helpline. People reach out to us in desperation when they’re struggling to navigate the mental health system or they believe that the mental health system is failing them or a loved one, and they’re struggling to get care for themselves or for someone they care about. We advocate for them and use our network of contacts – the government and private providers – to try to get that addressed.
Some are really intense, complicated situations that require considerable time. You know, our system is very complicated, it’s very fragmented. And, unfortunately, there’s this part of our system where there’s a huge gap, or there is no service offered or someone doesn’t qualify. A lot of family members and loved ones who have struggled for years supporting a loved one or maybe they just learned of the diagnosis of someone that they love who has a new diagnosis and they’re trying to figure out what to do.
Our service is free to participants, and we offer support groups for family members and loved ones where they can come and talk to people who have had similar experiences. Our educational and support programming are led by peers that have experienced the same thing. The groups are led by someone who’s got a similar story and has had similar experiences. And likewise, we do that for people living with mental illness. We offer educational events to help them understand what’s going on and what they can do to potentially strengthen their recovery process, build a support network and learn about resources that are available to them. We focus on the entire family, not only the person who’s struggling with mental health issues.
DCL: What’s one of NAMI’s biggest challenges?
Josh Thomas: I’d say we have struggled to bring in new donors at the rate that we need to right now, to fund our mission and build our capacity to meet the huge wave of need that we’re experiencing now and that we’re going to be continuing to experience for the next decade.
DCL: What are some of the things you do in your life that help you navigate through the world these days? What’s something that keeps you waking up feeling hopeful?
Josh Thomas: I haven’t always done a good job of self-care, even when it is something that I am encouraging others to do. Many of us may have been raised to put other people first and when you’re working so hard to take care of other people, it’s hard to remember that we have to fill our own cup, or we don’t have anything left to give.
I dedicate time every day to exercise. I’m far more careful about what I eat, I finally recognized I can’t eat like a 12-year-old anymore. I need to eat and be mindful of taking care of myself from a nutrition standpoint. I am a person of faith and I also practice mindfulness. I meditate and pray, and those are things that are really important to me and they help me manage my stress and to stay optimistic. There’s so much going on and we’re seeing so much polarization in our country and in our world. One of the other things that I’ve really become conscious of in the last couple of years is to be mindful of the negative information that I allow into my life.
DCL: How do you think the mental health crisis has affected veterans or law enforcement?
Josh Thomas: In my experience I saw how many law enforcement officers were really reluctant to address their mental health issues. They were good about staying in shape physically, but they often avoided addressing anything related to their mental health. And when you think about it, that’s quite absurd. People expect to go through a 20- or 25-year career seeing things that no human being should have to experience and think that’s not going to impact them in some way. I had officers share stories with me about their careers having negatively affected them in many ways and I found out how many broken relationships they had – or that they didn’t have relationships with their kids, or that they drank every night. They lacked self-awareness and didn’t see how this was impacting them. I’m not saying that with judgment because I’ve done the same type of stuff where I just didn’t have that insight into myself. Veterans and law enforcement officers alike are often reluctant to address their own mental health as our cultures have projected a view of weakness when a peer has a mental health issue. The reality is having the courage to address our mental health issues is a strength. It also shows leadership and may inspire or encourage others to do the same.
DCL: And that’s where NAMI Delaware comes in.
Josh Thomas: Right. We offer a wide range of support, education and housing to help those affected by mental illness in Delaware. We can help first responders, veterans and their families find resources, support and education. We have 76 properties to house people and have about 300 people living there who are struggling with mental illness. We do legislative advocacy to try to help shape public policy by meeting with government officials to try to change those systemic issues that are creating those gaps and that are letting people down. So many people are falling through the cracks which then unfortunately leads to lots of people with mental illness in jails and prisons across the country.
We help people who aren’t living the life they could because they haven’t received the treatment and support they need. We give them support and guidance to navigate the healthcare system. Our educational and support programs are at no-cost to the participant.
If you need help:
NAMI Delaware takes calls on their HelpLine during normal business hours at 888-427-2643. If you get an automated greeting, select option 1.
2400 West 4th Street
Wilmington, DE 19805
Hours: Monday through Friday, 9am – 4pm
To schedule an in-person appointment, please call:
English: 302-427-0787 | Spanish: 302-415-4356
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